What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami – Book Review

This novel constitutes my first experience with the non-fiction work of the great Haruki Murakami. It was a hell of a lot of fun – and now that I’ve read it, I feel I have a touch greater understanding of the man behind some of my favourite magical realism fiction.

This book will motivate you even if you’re not a runner, even if you have no interest whatsoever in taking part in a marathone or a triathlone or any sort of endurance-based competition at all. It’s a book about perseverance, about a man chasing after what he loves.

Murakami persevered first in running a bar; then, he began to write and once he found his legs, he’s never stopped since. Throughout, he’s kept running. Succeeding, failing – that matters…but not too much. What matters more is, he’s never given up, not even as age slowly crept up on him; as it does with us all.

I suspect writing this one was something of a cathartic experience – almost as cathartic as running itself has been for him. In his catharsis, I find inspiration – metric tons of it. In how he’s dealt with loneliness, for example, I find solace; rather, I find solace that he has never really minded it. Sometimes, I feel a certain amount of guilt for being okay with mine.

I love running, even though I’ve never done too much of it. A few months here and there, inevitably ruined by some cold or flu or virus; the cycle broken and my willpower smashed to smithereenes. But this book…it inspires me to go back to it, to make another effort.

“To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm.”

I also happily accept the following quote as a pat on the head, in my charmingly arrogant fashion:

“If you’re young and talented, it’s like you have wings.”

Don’t worry, this didn’t get to my head too much, not after I came across this piece:

“An unhealthy soul requires a healthy body.”

You’ve got to be realistic about these things.

I listened to this one on Audible. The narration was courtesy of Ray Porter, who is one of my all-time favourite narrators; I’m familiar with his work as gruff detective Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s classic noir novels. Brilliant job, my good Mr Porter, brilliant.

My score for What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is 4 out of 5 stars. Toodles!

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I’m happy with the progress I’ve made with Haruki Murakami’s books over these last few months. Kafka on the Shore in May, Norwegian Wood in September and just this last week, What I Talk About when I talk About Running. The last is freshest in my mind but I’ll contain myself and instead turn to Norwegian Wood, the title inspired by the Beatles song of the same name. It also happens to be the work that really shot Haruki Murakami to fame first in Japan and later internationally.

Norwegian Wood is a love story and it’s about overcoming grief, and it’s about those first coming of age years after you leave home, quite uncertain about what comes next, the direction you’re supposed to take as the world begins to mold and pressure you in ways outside of your control. It’s easy to lose yourself — something that main character Watanabe manages at one point in this novel.

Let’s look at it as a love story first, shall we? It’s sweet and sexy and tragic enough that you might just tear up by the end of it. Bittersweet but hopeful – that’s how I’d describe it in three words, were I forced to do so.

As a side-note, I would ride on the bus, listening to the audiobook more than once, when a ridiculous, steamy sex scene started up. You know, these are the moments when you’re not quite certain whether you should be grinning or blushing or pressing ‘Pause’. Say one thing about that, say it was funny.

What about dealing with grief?

Toru Watanabe, the protagonist from whose PoV the novel is told, loses his best friend Kizuki. Kizuki kills himself on his 17th birthday and this marks Watanabe for life — as it would most of us. Another, Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko, is as affected by his suicide as Watanabe; perhaps more. Years later, Naoko and Watanabe reconnect and fall for each other but Kizuki’s shadow never fully clears between the two. Unable to cope, Naoko eventually ends up in a sanatorium, doing her finest to piece herself back together.

Some of the characters are unforgettable. Maybe not their names – I forget names easy enough – but the personalities will stay with me. Nagasawa is Watanabe’s exact opposite — driven and ambitious, and far more cynical than our protagonist, Nagasawa is in many ways Toru’s foil. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the two become close friends…although Watanabe never allows Nagasawa into his heart the way he let Kizuki in.

I was partial to Midori, an older woman in the same sanatorium as Naoko. As Nagasawa is to Watanabe, Midori is a foil to Naoko — though burdened by her own demons (her story is perhaps the highlight of Norwegian Wood for me) Midori has strength, the presence of character necessary to survive and perhaps overcome all that placed her in the sanatorium. Midori’s a guitar player, a concert pianist and totally the coolest, yo! Very flirty, too, which gives rise to some hilarious exchanges between her, Watanabe and Naoko, who also happens to be her roommate and dear friend.

This isn’t the best Murakami book I’ve read, nor is it my favourite. I’d live these honours to Kafka on the Shore and Dance, Dance, Dance, respectively. But it has a certain appeal to those who know a little of loss and pain and love, and I am certain some of you will be well-served by reading it.

I straightened up and looked out the plane window at the dark clouds hanging over the North Sea, thinking of what I had lost in the course of my life: times gone forever, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings I would never know again.

The opening paragraph of Norwegian Wood.

My score for this novel is 4 stars. There’s plenty you can get out of it — but it’s not a book for everyone. Stay away if you can’t handle suicide and depression in your fiction – leave me a comment down below with your preferences, and I’ll point you to another one of Murakami’s novels, instead. If you’ve read any of his previous novels, there’s a chance this one’ll surprise you — it lacks many of the eery, magical realism and even surrealism that’s typical for most of his other works.

The audiobook narration by John Chancer was enjoyable – no complaints there, he distinguished between the characters and delivered an excellent performance.